There wasn't a ton of fanfare when the Vikings signed former Cardinals and Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks to a two-year, $10 million contract back in March. Seen as a solid veteran replacement for Anthony Barr, Hicks' signing was outshined by deals for fellow defensive free agents Harrison Phillips, Za'Darius Smith, and Patrick Peterson.
Nearly three full weeks into training camp, it appears that the Hicks addition has a chance to be a highly impactful move for the 2022 Vikings defense. He's been one of the standouts of camp, forcing turnovers and impressing coaches with his steady play while building great chemistry with Eric Kendricks.
When Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Kevin O'Connell and the Vikings set out to look for a free agent inside linebacker to replace Barr, they wanted someone who would fit well in Ed Donatell's 3-4 scheme. They also wanted an experienced player who could quickly connect with Kendricks on and off the field, considering the importance of constant communication between the two linebackers in the middle of the defensive front.
The regular season opener is still a month away, but so far, the Vikings have gotten everything they hoped for and more from Hicks.
"To have Jordan Hicks come in here and fit in, to have Eric feel comfortable, that’s special," Donatell said. "With those two guys playing together, right now how they play off each other, I haven’t been around much better. Separate occasions in the spring, Eric came to me and said, 'I love playing with Jordan.' And Jordan said, 'I love playing with Eric.' When you have that, you never assume that can happen. You can go out and recruit players, but it’s important to bond them and they bonded themselves. What a special plus for us, for the coaches. We’re happy with those two guys. It’s really a neat relationship."
Back in 2015, the Vikings selected Kendricks out of UCLA with the 45th overall pick. 39 slots later — and four before the Vikings added an edge rusher named Danielle Hunter — the Eagles took Hicks, a star linebacker out of Texas. Seven years later, with nearly 200 combined starts between them, the two are preparing to play together for the first time.
Building chemistry was a process that began back in OTAs and has ramped up during training camp. Both Kendricks and Hicks have raved about how easy it's been to get on the same page and create a relationship.
"It's special because you don't always get that opportunity to play next to somebody that sees things the way you do and thinks the way you do and plays football at such a high level for that long," Hicks said. "It's been great. Part of the reason I came here was for that opportunity to play next to EK. We came in the same year, I followed his career, I played with his brother (Mychal Kendricks in Philadelphia). We have a really good background together. It's all jelling and we're still working and we're still growing. Every day is a new learning curve that we're trying to battle through. As long as the process is fine and we continue to jell, we'll be fine."
Hicks came to the Vikings with big shoes to fill. Kendricks and Barr played together for each of the last seven seasons in Minnesota and for three years at UCLA before that. They're incredibly close friends. In many ways, Barr was a perfect fit in Mike Zimmer's defense, making five Pro Bowls during his Vikings tenure. But with Barr's health being a question mark and his consistency waning in recent years, the new regime decided to move on this offseason.
One thing that helps is that Kendricks and Hicks spent the offseason learning together as the Vikings transitioned to an entirely new defensive scheme under Donatell. Hicks didn't have to come in and try to fill Barr's role in the Zimmer defense that was in place for eight years. Even though Kendricks is entering his eighth season as a Viking and Hicks his first, both players essentially started from square one back in the spring.
Kendricks and Barr's chemistry was on another level. They knew Zimmer's defense inside and out, and they had the ability to communicate with just a look. It'll take time, but Kendricks and Hicks are getting there.
"We actually talked about 'the look' the other day," Hicks said. "Non-verbal communication where we just know what each other is thinking and reacting off of it. That's what we're practicing. That's the beauty in training camp and going against our offense that has so many different wrinkles to it. We've been able to have a lot of things that we've had to talk through and work through and it's making us better."
Kendricks has echoed that same idea. Whether they give up a play to the offense or make a play on defense, every training camp rep gives them the opportunity to talk and learn and grow together.
"It's good," Kendricks said. "Maybe we get beat on something, but we both know at the same time why we got beat and then we get another chance and we get a different look at it and we're like 'OK, let's talk about that now.' Each day we're out here, we're getting beat but we're also making plays and they're all things to talk about, regardless. That communication off the field as well as the adjustments on the field are really important, and we both kind of have the same lingo, we both are eight years in the league, so we both really know what's going on."
Kendricks said he and Hicks have the shared experience of spending much of their careers in 4-3 schemes, so they're learning this defense from a similar baseline of knowledge. Whether the Vikings knew this or not when they signed Hicks, Kendricks said the two of them see the game in similar ways.
"We definitely see things a lot in the same way," he said. "We both kind of were playing 4-3 for a while, so a lot of the 4-3 nickel schemes, we see the gaps exchange and stuff like that the same way. Our progression reads are very like-minded. Things that make sense to us, they make sense to both of us. And things that don't make sense, usually we can agree on that as well."
We won't truly be able to evaluate Hicks until the games that count roll around, but he's been awfully impressive so far in camp. He's intercepted Cousins multiple times, forced at least one fumble, and mostly importantly, he's been in the right position at a high rate, whether it's against the run, blowing up a screen pass or covering a tight end in space.
Across seven seasons and 92 games, Hicks has been every bit the stat sheet stuffer and turnover creator as Kendricks has been in Minnesota.
- Jordan Hicks: 92 G, 11 INT, 34 PD, 4 FF, 9 FR, 72 pressures, 10.5 sacks, 638 tackles, 41 TFL
- Eric Kendricks: 100 G, 9 INT, 45 PD, 4 FF, 5 FR, 86 pressures, 14 sacks, 782 tackles, 46 TFL
“He’s been doing that his whole career," O'Connell said when asked about Hicks forcing turnovers in practice. "Both he and EK have such a — they’re both very good athletes for playing the position. They can cover a lot of ground. What this defense allows people to do is everybody’s got vision on the ball, on the quarterback, on different route structures. They can play in space, which is a real trait for linebackers in this league. But sometimes that doesn’t go so well depending on matchups and isolations within zones. But those two guys have an unbelievable feel to be instinctively where they’re supposed to be by the X’s and O’s on paper, but then also show up, punch a ball out, get a hand on a ball."
"Those two guys, it’s been really cool to watch them kind of come together."
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